ACU (Australian Catholic University)


Issue 5, Winter 2012

You and me


With her door always open, Naomi Wolfe welcomes the ACU community to ask questions about Aboriginal culture. Karen McAlear, walked in one day and, with Naomi’s assistance, received the first-ever APS scholarship for people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent 

Naomi Wolfe, Academic Coordinator at ACU’s Jim-baa-yer Indigenous Higher Education Unit, Centre for Indigenous Education and Research (CIER)

“Fear is the biggest drawback when it comes to non-Indigenous people learning about Aboriginal culture. People don’t want to appear foolish or racist, so they get pretty nervous about asking too many questions and saying the ‘wrong’ things.

My nanna used to say, ‘there are no silly questions, only missed opportunities’ – and at ACU’s Centre for Indigenous Research (CIER) we welcome ACU students and staff from all backgrounds to drop in, have a chat and a cuppa, and ask as many questions as they like in a safe space.

CIER consults with elders from Indigenous communities around Australia – helping ACU’s Indigenous students get the support they need to pursue careers that will benefit them, their communities and the wider Australian society.

We run the Alternative Entry Scheme (AES) – providing pathways of access for Indigenous students. Karen McAlear was the first ACU student to enter the psychology masters through AES and is kicking tremendous goals in the program.

Things got pretty tough for Karen partway through her course and she was thinking about dropping to part-time or deferring her course. She came by Jim-baa-yer for a chat and I was privileged to support her with a scholarship application.

As part of my job, I write a lot of scholarship support letters for Indigenous students, and I have to say, Karen’s was the easiest letter I’ve ever written – she just has so many great qualities.

Karen was awarded the Australian Psychological Society (APS) Study Bursary for People of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Descent – and it’s no surprise she got the scholarship.

There is something quite exceptional about Karen – it’s her quiet confidence and strength. Grounded and humble, there’s nothing artificial about Karen. She genuinely cares about other people.

A nurse with more than 20 years experience, she has been involved with setting up many mental health programs across Melbourne and in remote parts of Australia.

Although Karen didn’t grow up knowing she was Aboriginal, she has a really strong sense of who she is. Her grandfather was from the stolen generation, so she’s worked really hard to find her identity as an Aboriginal woman.

When the news came in about the scholarship, Karen and I were over the moon. We were jumping around and giggling together like a couple of schoolgirls. Anyone would’ve thought we’d just won TattsLotto. Actually, it felt better than winning any lottery.

Basically, it means that Karen can continue her studies and follow her calling. Karen is set to contribute great things to the mental health care of both Indigenous and non- Indigenous communities.”

Karen McAlear, psychology masters student and APS Indigenous scholarship recipient

“I was trained as a psychiatric nurse far too long ago to want to remember. It was in the old psychiatric training hospitals and I was part of the de-institutional program, aiming to integrate people with mental illness back into the community for ongoing treatment and care.

I also worked as a psychiatric nurse in the public system with Mental Health, which involved case management and 12 years on the CAT (crisis assessment and treatment) team in Melbourne.

Nursing has also taken me to remote places. I spent time at Lighting Ridge in remote outback NSW, working to help people with mental illness – I eventually set up a refuge there for women.

After so many years in psychiatric nursing, I became really attuned to the needs of those experiencing mental illness and decided I wanted to do more to help them. I enrolled in the Master of Psychology at ACU and have found it to be a really caring and supportive learning environment. ACU is warm and welcoming and I don’t have that ‘lost in the system’ feeling at all.

Naomi has been an amazing support. She has a special place in my heart for so many reasons. She is really able to identify if someone is struggling and makes herself available to talk – not only about educational difficulties, but also personal hurdles.

Naomi told me about the APS scholarship and supported me with the application – if it wasn’t for her, this would not have been possible. The scholarship has made it possible to continue my studies and live my dream.

I am looking forward to my next placement at the Victorian Aboriginal Counselling Service where I will be working with the Koori Kids and Adolescent Mental Health Service.

The time I spent in the outback and on Aboriginal missions was invaluable and extremely rewarding. In the future, I plan to return to the outback and remote regions of Australia to provide psychological intervention and try to make a difference.”

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Page last updated: 16 Dec 2015

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